A look back at conservation in Nova Scotia in 2016

It was an interesting, and busy, year for conservation in Nova Scotia.

Birch Cove Lakes in the fall (Photo: Irwin Barrett)

Mother Canada

The highlight for many will likely be the federal government finally stepping in and putting a stop to the giant Mother Canada statue from being built inside Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This strange, strange, strange proposal to build this awful megalith (sometimes referred to as the Zombie Statue) should never have made it as far as it did.

I’m not going to get into all the sordid details on this, like the funding that Parks Canada provided to the Proponent in support of the Mother Canada project…quite frankly, it just brings back too many bad memories (many of us are still haunted by this)…but, needless-to-say, the dedication of local opponents from Friends of Green Cove and the outpouring of support from Canadians across the country successfully killed this inappropriate project.

The whole “MoCan” debacle exposes a major policy failure of private development occurring within our public parks.  For the creation of memorials in particular, it would seem that Parks Canada has no real policy in place that requires public involvement in the design, refinement, and approval of such projects in our national parks. That needs to change.  Mother Canada was a failure on many levels, not least of which because it failed so badly in demonstrating the hardships and losses experienced by the bravest Canadians, for which it purports to represent.

Birch Cove Lakes

For people who love the Birch Cove Lakes (and there are many), the summer months were an awful roller coaster ride.  Although these near-urban wilderness lands, a mere 5km from downtown Halifax, are intended to become a protected regional park, a series of missteps by the municipality over many years, followed by a failed facilitative process meant that the Birch Cove Lakes wilderness came within a hair’s breadth of being approved for suburban development.

Fortunately, Halifax Regional Council ultimately voted down the development proposal on September 6th, but not before the public was dragged through the ringer on this and not before a motion was put on the table to approve “secondary planning” for the Birch Cove Lakes. Yikes!!

Once again, the weight of public opinion won the day. Despite the confusing series of events, and despite being mid-summer when many folks disengage from their hectic schedules, 1420 people took the time to write City Hall about the Birch Cove Lakes. Virtually all were supportive of the regional park.

Although the immediate threat to the Birch Cove Lakes may have passed, the City is still no further ahead in acquiring the privately-owned lands for the regional park. Until that happens, the threats facing the Birch Cove Lakes will keep re-occurring. Here’s hoping that 2017 will bring real progress, once-and-for-all.

Marine protected areas

It was a busy year for marine conservation.  Regulations to officially create St. Anns Bank Marine Protected Area (MPA), off the coast of Cape Breton, were published by the federal government in Canada Gazette Part One in December, which basically means this drawn out process is nearing completion. From beginning to end, St. Anns Bank MPA has taken nearly seven years to complete. There is one final round of public consultation that runs until January 30th, 2017, so if you support marine protection, please take a minute to write a letter welcoming St. Anns Bank. Less than one percent of Canada’s ocean territory is designated as marine protected areas, and significantly less than that is entirely off-limits to industrial activity.

St. Anns Bank MPA is 4,364 square kilometres in size. That’s pretty big…it’s about 5 times bigger than Cape Breton Highlands National Park. What’s even more significant, though, is that the MPA contains strong measures to ensure that the marine ecosystems within its border are protected.  One hundred percent of the MPA is off-limits to oil and gas exploration and development.  It’s also one hundred percent off-limits to bottom-trawling, the most damaging type of fishing practice.  Three zones, totalling about 20% of the MPA, are created for existing fisheries that have less impact on bottom-habitat, including fisheries for lobster, snow crab, and halibut. St. Anns Bank MPA is important for leatherback sea turtles, deep sea corals and sponges, and habitat for Atlantic wolfish and Atlantic cod.

This year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the Maritimes Region has been busy developing a marine protected areas network plan for the Scotian Shelf Bioregion and undertaking public and stakeholder consultations. Canada has set a target of protecting at least 10% of its ocean territory as marine protected areas by the year 2020. The marine protected areas planning that’s happening in the Maritimes Region right now is intended to help meet that target, and will include a combination of offshore and coastal sites. A draft MPA network plan should be released sometime in 2017.

Stalled protected areas implementation

Not all the conservation news in 2016 was good however. For the first time since 2010, and only the second time in thirteen years, the Nova Scotia government FAILED to create a new protected area this year. This, despite direction from the Premier of Nova Scotia to the Minister of Environment and the Minister of Natural Resources to continue with the implementation of the Nova Scotia Parks and Protected Areas Plan.  That plan, which was approved in 2013, still has nearly 100 pending protected areas that are currently awaiting legal protection.  This includes amazing areas, such as Mabou Highlands, St. Mary’s River, Giants Lake, Wentworth Valley, Chignecto Isthmus, Sackville River, Economy River, and a number of sites in southwestern Nova Scotia containing some of the rarest species in Canada (e.g. Molega Lake, Ponhook Lake, Pleasant River, Shingle Lake, etc.).

Publicly, the Nova Scotia government is still committed to the protected areas plan, but I’ve been working on conservation issues in this province long enough to know that implementation is bogging down. Twelve months is more than enough time to roll out a new batch of protected areas from the protected areas plan. The Department of Natural Resources has been busy this year scaling back conservation measures (see next section), so it’s reasonable to presume that protected areas are likely being caught up in that as well. That’s unfortunate and the longer these delays continue, the harder it will be for the provincial government to claim that everything is just fine and on-track to be implemented.

Quick action by the Nova Scotia government in designating the next few batches of new protected areas is crucial early in 2017, to restore public confidence that sites promised for protection will actually be protected. I will be watching very closely to see which specific sites will move forward to designation, and which will be held back for later designations. That will be the most telling sign of all.

Big steps backwards on forestry

To be blunt, this was a terrible year for improving forestry practices in Nova Scotia.  Under the direction of Minister Lloyd Hines, the Department of Natural Resources abandoned its commitment to reduce clearcutting in Nova Scotia by 50% and to eliminate the practice of whole-tree harvesting. The provincial government also dropped the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certificate that it maintained for forestry operations within the Medway District, on the former Bowater lands in southwestern Nova Scotia. FSC requires a high standard for forestry operations, and independent oversight. The former Minister of Natural Resources indicated an interest in expanding FSC certification on public lands in Nova Scotia, but Minister Hines has taken his department in a dramatically different direction from that.

In the fall of 2016, many Nova Scotians were quite concerned to hear that the Department of Natural Resources was proposing clearcuts on the southeastern border of Kejimkujik National Park.  Although hundreds of letters from the public were submitted, Minister Hines ultimately approved 94% of the clearcuts that were proposed and reserved decision on the remaining 6% until some unspecified later date.  Apparently, the Minister of Natural Resources didn’t even bother to wait to hear back from the ecologists working at Parks Canada to determine any potential impacts on species-at-risk before approving the clearcuts. The laissez faire approach to which the Department of Natural Resources responded to legitimate public concerns is quite telling indeed.

What’s up for 2017

Keep a close eye on Birch Cove Lakes. The Halifax Regional Municipality will attempt yet again to acquire privately-owned lands for the regional park. After ten years of waiting, the public is anxious to see real and tangible outcomes from the city.

Provincially, the Nova Scotia government will need to make better progress implementing the Parks and Protected Areas Plan.  At the moment, nearly 100 pending protected areas are caught in government purgatory, and such a situation cannot continue indefinitely.

Next year could be a big year for marine conservation. Hopefully, St. Anns Bank MPA will be official and a proper network of marine protected areas will be proposed for the Maritimes Region. Canada has a long way to go to catch-up on marine conservation, and 2017 will be an important year to demonstrate real progress.

It’s been several years now since Sable Island was declared a national park reserve. Parks Canada still needs to develop a proper management plan for the island, which tackles key issues around visitation and developing off-island visitor experiences. Expect much of that work on the management plan, including public consultations, to occur next year.

Thank you for your continued interest in conservation in Nova Scotia. CPAWS works hard on the big issues and we appreciate your support.

~Chris Miller